Utter solitude is a bitch; lest we forget that some of the most emotional pieces of music and introspective works of art have come at the hands of the sheltered. After spending several months alone in Norway, K Records’s franchise songwriter sought to test his new material on the road. Packaged as Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003, the album finds Phil Elvrum and company bootlegging some 12 new songs before humble audiences.
Unlike a typical live album, which rehashes old material to garner profits, Live in Japan is filled with songs that had never seen a studio. Throughout the performance, Elvrum sounds haunted as he performs alone, acoustically. And, like his mentor Neil Young, Elvrum has an innate ability for penning tunes of utter vulnerability.
The biggest problem with Live in Japan lies in its flow; however, this is ultimately due to the fact that it’s a haphazard compilation of new material spread over three nights, and compacted into 40 minutes. A lucid, somber “Great Ghosts” finds Elvrum at his lyrical peak: A tangled moment of self-actualization coupled with the hardships of self-doubt; but, juxtaposed next to a sprawling, overly-drawn-out “Universe Conclusion,” the sequencing seems ill at ease.
A wavering, “After N. Young” finds Elvrum’s signature production style coupled with his wavering voice; yet, it’s sequenced next to two novelty tracks, “My Favorite Things” and “Silent Night,” both of which are throwaways. And, while Elvrum may always seem to be in the halcyon days of his life, he’s always in a passive, reflexive mood.
Despite its flaws, there’s something to be said about Live in Japan: Elvrum’s music is testing, but his ability to construct a lyrical canvas so deep and so intimate the listener can’t help but be moved. Listening to Phil Elvrum or his band, The Microphones, is tantamount to a staring contest. It’s a difficult yet alluring task that allows both participants to ultimately derive some kind of pleasure from the pain; a reason to push them that next step further. Just be sure not to blink first.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.